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This No-Cost, Drug-Free Therapy Helps Children With Autism
Evidence is mounting that transcendental meditation can help children with autism focus and be less impulsive.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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For parents seeking nondrug therapies for children with autism spectrum disorders, transcendental meditation may be worth trying.
As an addition to traditional treatments, 10 minutes twice a day of transcendental meditation (TM) has been shown to help some children manage the condition. It may also help children who have varying degrees of social, communication, and behavioral challenges.
TM for Children With Autism
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Some symptoms can be treated with medication, but many parents prefer nondrug therapies, said Kathleen Angkustsiri, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the University of California, Davis, MIND Institute in Sacramento.
Dr. Angkustsiri said she would encourage parents to discuss alternative therapies, including meditation, for their children with autism with their health care providers. A UC Davis MIND study found that parents of children with autism do use alternative and complementary therapies more often than parents of children diagnosed with other developmental delays, she said.
To practice transcendental meditation, a technique based on an ancient Indian tradition, you sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and silently repeat a sound or mantra that you learn from your teacher. “TM allows the mind and body to automatically settle down to a state of restful alertness,” said Bob Roth, executive director of the David Lynch Foundation and a longtime TM teacher.
TM appears ideally suited for children with autism, he said, because it does not involve any concentration or control of the mind. “With TM, the body is profoundly rested and relaxed, and the mind is settled, yet wide awake inside," Roth said. "That deep rest eliminates the stress that fuels learning disorders and behavioral disorders that are seen in children with ASDs.”
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However, he said, there are two requirements for getting the most out of TM: Children must be at least 12 or 13 to be able to learn how to practice TM, and they must be taught TM individually by a certified instructor. “TM is not mass meditation,” he said. “Everyone learns from individual instruction by a properly certified teacher.”
It takes about an hour of instruction over four days. Roth said any child on the autism spectrum could learn TM as long as the child is old enough. It may take children with autism longer to learn than those without developmental disabilities, but “it’s not difficult, it’s not frustrating for them," he said. "They will find it very relaxing and very satisfying."
Not everyone agrees on what's the most appropriate age, however. The authors of a review published in Autism Research and Treatment in 2012 concluded that mantra meditation is most useful in young children with autism and is feasible for those between the ages of 3 and 14.
TM as a Treatment Add-On, Not a Replacement
No one is recommending transcendental meditation as a standalone treatment for autism, said Norman Rosenthal, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School in Washington, D.C., and author of "Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation." “But for parents trying to find something to help their child, TM is certainly worth taking a look,” he said.
TM works well in conjunction with other medications and therapies your child may be given for treatment of autism. “Your child may not need as much medication, but TM is not a replacement for medical treatment," Roth said. "It’s up to your child’s doctor whether to reduce medications.”
Roth encouraged parents of children with autism to learn transcendental meditation themselves so that they can practice together. “It’s a wonderful thing to share,” he said, adding that just 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes after school and before dinner should result in the child being less impulsive, less likely to act out, happier, and more focused. He said that children who practice TM also will sleep better at night. “Sometimes I start with just 5 minutes until the child gets more comfortable with it,” Roth said.
What the Evidence Says
To date, most of the evidence on the benefits of autism and meditation is anecdotal and from observations, said Dr. Rosenthal, a panelist on the David Lynch Foundation's November 2013 webinar, "Autism, Meditation, and Stress."
However, efforts are under way to evaluate and better understand how TM might help children with autism spectrum disorders. One small study published in 2011 in Mind & Brain, The Journal of Psychiatry, found that parents of students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other learning disorders reported significant improvement in certain symptoms after 6 months of practicing TM (in a group or with a teacher) for 10 minutes twice a day.
Also, researchers at a number of well-known psychology and medical organizations are studying the health benefits of TM, including the National Institutes of Health, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and Harvard Medical School.
In the meantime, Roth said he sees no risk in trying the technique. “All that’s happening is that you’re allowing the body to take rest and relaxation, and there’s never a risk to letting the body be rested," he said.
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